China and an Ethical Mapping of the Global Economy

The hardcore nationalists among us might have their hackles rise on this one. Tuesday’s massive power grid collapse has triggered caustic comments from the international media. One such comment has come from the UK-based daily newspaper – The Guardian. Here is an extract from an analysis in the paper: “It is a paradox that in China unelected leaders are careful to provide the masses with material benefits such as electricity, water and roads because they legitimise dictatorship. Whereas in India, democracy allows just the opposite: free elections excuse the political class from providing the basics of life to the masses who have elected them.”

No matter what our allegiance is to the nation, the argument is doubtless an interesting one. China has one of the world’s most powerful dictatorial regimes thriving on one-party rule, handling levers of stifling control. Dissidence of any kind – political, democratic, artistic – is theoretically and practically outlawed by such regimes. This applies as much to the unarmed students’ uprising in Tiananmen Square (brutally crushed by the army,) as it does to the Chinese government’s response to artists like Ai Weiwei.

But even such a consummate state machinery can’t weed out protests altogether. Yes, it can manage them better. But it definitely cannot snuff them out. Hundreds of protests happen in China, challenging its policies of land acquisition, rising inequalities and lack of resources in the countryside. But the fear of punishment does work in keeping them less publicized.

In sharp contrast, India is a messy democracy, where theoretically, the state recognizes the right to dissent. But how does its commitment really play out? There are ways of managing or controlling a democracy – which the Indian state seems top have leveraged well. Alarmingly, it’s the very principle of electoral democracy (non-existent in China) that the ruling Congress and the political class as a whole, is using to dismiss out of hand protests and movements that go outside the party system. Take for example the on-going Anna Hazare struggle. Contest election or else don’t talk too much – is what the Congress has to say to the protesters. By using the CBI to harass its opponents and even members of dissident civil society groups, and taking its own time to pass a crucial bill to protect whistleblowers, the government is making light of the very principle of democracy it swears by.

At the heart of this India-China divide lie two political systems. One: a democracy which, neither provides its citizens with basic necessities, nor is true to the concept of honouring dissidence. The other: a one-party dictatorship, which doesn’t make any pretence of being a democracy and is openly hyper-nationalist, even as it battles  constant protests challenging the mighty state apparatus. So the next time someone says “at least India is politically democratic,” perhaps we should wonder what meaning “democracy” has any more.

A worrisome development is that China intends to intensify its propaganda for claiming the disputed bordering areas both on land and at sea. Recently it has been learnt that China has established a Steering Sub-Committee for guiding, coordinating and supervising, educating, propagating awareness of national map and controlling entire national map market with coordination of 13 Ministries which include National Agency for Geographic Information and Map Production, Committee for Propaganda and Instruction of the Communist Party of China, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Industry, Ministry of Public Security etc. The main objective of this committee is to instruct and guide the task of reprinting and republishing national maps and organising propaganda.  This would indicate that China is going to intensify cartographic aggression and would make its position very rigid with new “justifications” for the disputed areas.

Significantly, coordination in two important regions where China claims areas- Sino-Indian border and in South China Sea- is being done by the same official- State Councillor Dai Bingguo. He is the Special Representative for Sino-Indian border talks and is also coordinating the work of different ministries and agencies in China dealing with the South China disputes. This suggests that China would have the same strategy for both the regions. Despite several round of talks, there is no palpable progress on the Sino- Indian border resolution. China has recently repeated several times its claims on Arunachal Pradesh. Alongside, the intrusions have continued at a high level. This year in the first four months there had been 64 intrusions by the Chinese PLA. In the last two years, the intrusions more than 200 in a year. In addition, the Chinese are in occupation of the Indian part of J&K, which they obtained from Pakistan in 1963. The Chinese troops are also present in PoK. In South China Sea, China is avoiding discussions at multilateral forums and keep on claiming areas. It not only enforces fishing ban in parts of the South China Sea, which belong to other nations, it objects to commercial operations in areas which fall into the EEZs of other countries. It had objected to the Indian and Russian companies involved in the oil exploration operations.

To understand the Chinese strategy in the bordering region, their activities in the South China Sea needs to be studied. In the South China Sea, China had first adopted the Strategy of Anti-Access and Anti-Denial (A2AD) for the first chain of islands and the extended it to the second chain of islands. This strategy is based on acquisition of anti-ship missiles, other weapons and air-craft carrier. Chinese aggressiveness has been noticeable recently in the incident near Scarborough Shoal involving the Philippines and the Chinese ships. Last year the Chinese cut the cables of two Vietnamese ships. Their nine dotted lines show that almost 90% of the South China Sea belongs to China. Efforts to resolve the disputes have not yielded any significant result. The Chinese claims are based on selective history. In case of Scarborough Shoal, China claims the area on the basis of the map of the 13th century when China was itself under the alien Mongol rule.  However, a 10th century Arab traveller and a geographer al-Masudi had made reference to the Cham Sea and trade between Champa and Luzon (Philippines). More over while China rejects the unequal treaties imposed by colonial powers, it points out that the Treaty of Paris of 1896 had not given Scarborough Shoal to the Philippines.

In case with India a similar effort is on. The official sponsored media has started mentioning Arunachal Pradesh as the south Tibet. The Chinese maps often show Sikkim as an independent country. The cartographic aggression is continuing and with the coordinated propaganda as the result of effort of 13 Ministries, this is likely to intensify. Selective interpretation of history and boundaries drawn earlier would continue. Alongside, China which has made road and rail network in the bordering areas in its side and has deployed missiles at Delingha, which can easily hit targets in the North East. This would help China to incrementally adopt a strategy similar to A2AD. With Chinese troops in PoK and the military network established at the border, today China is in a better position to adopt aggressive posture towards India. The anti-India rhetoric has already become shriller and louder. The articles written in the Global Times-an officially sponsored paper- clearly reflect the hardening of the Chinese attitude towards Arunachal Pradesh.  It must be admitted that Indian response is also encouraging China to adopt aggressive posture towards India. India is following the policy of ‘managing China’ by avoiding confrontation and downplaying incidents of intrusions. This in fact is not working in our interest. China may be viewing it as tacit acceptance of its claims. India has already adopted a policy of not sending Indians from Arunachal Pradesh and J&K. Whenever China opposes such delegates in the official teams, India drops them. China may be viewing it as India’s recognition that these areas are at least disputed. These certainly are sending wrong signals to China. China has already proposed to establish a diplomatic office in Bhutan in order to reflect that India’s special relations with that country are not recognized by China.

India must change its strategy to deal with China. The so called policy of managing China is in fact encouraging China to be more aggressive towards India. The time has come to tell China what India would not tolerate. India must clearly indicate that intrusions into Indian Territory would not be acceptable and India could send Indians from any part of the country. At the same time our defence preparedness must be streamlined to be able to have a deterrent posture against China to ensure protection of our interests. At the same time India should maintain close relations with the countries in the South China Sea region to protect our legitimate interests. We have both commercial and strategic interests in the region. Mr Brijesh Mishra, the former National Security Advisor and Special Representative for Sino-Indian border talks, has called for strategic partnership with US to hedge China. Pragmatism demands this and therefore the suggestion in this regard made by Leo Panetta, the US Defense Secretary recently needs to be utilized. India’s geo-economic interests demand that it gives sufficient emphasis on geo-strategic interests in that region. India’s commercial interests can only be protected in that region if it has sufficient influence in the region.

Written by Andrew Hao

If you have been paying any attention to recent news on the crucible of China’s expansive development, then the negative social and environmental impacts of industrialization and economic growth can hardly be ignored. What is particularly provocative, and in need of sustained inquiry, is how these matters are increasingly represented as ethical failures specific to China’s position in a global moral economy: Baby formula tainted with melamine in 2008, and other recent food safety events; the Foxconn/Apple affair, held as a representative case of the exploitation endured by workers in outsourcing plants who contribute to maintaining the cheap prices and high profits enjoyed by consumers and investors in developed nations; daily reports on the quotidian experiences of businesses at every scale with political corruption and the bribery of state officials; China’s shameful merit of having the majority of what many media outlets have deemed to be the world’s most polluted cities. For even casual observers of contemporary China, the concept of business “scandals” appears euphemistic; the frequency and degree of these infractions seem to confirm that China is leading in a systematic race to the bottom in all dimensions of corporate social responsibility. Those who work in business ethics are often asked if corporate social responsibility is an oxymoron. When it comes to China, our interlocutors hint that the answer, more so than usual, is already settled.

The public representation of the events above, through media depictions and social critiques alike, amounts to more than just reportage centered on individual occurrences. It is also shaping an emerging transnational moral narrative that figures contemporary China as a particularly dense site of ethical failures contemporaneous with its economic development. While I have engaged in on-the-ground fieldwork with the Chinese managerial elites, NGOs, state officials, factory workers, international organizations, and commercial associations who are collectively debating and molding the relationship of ethical norms to liberalizing market forms, my interest here is not to adjudicate whether China is or is not a site of socially accountable business activities. This is not to say that empirical evidence that seeks to expose the failure of corporate implementations to live up to loudly proclaimed allegiances to normative standards is not vital; it is, and many significant observers and critics, both within and outside of China, are assessing the validity of how multinational and state owned enterprises perform against standards of broader social concern that exceed profit maximization alone.

Between glossy corporate PR publications seeking to persuade stakeholders about the ethical compliance of enterprises, and critical voices from a variety of circles who expose the failures of business self-regulation in increasingly moral terms, what is intriguing is how post-reform China has become a touchstone for contemporary global anxieties over the relationship between economic dynamics and ethical standards. While critical work has often rightly pointed to the particularity of local ethical worlds as they intersect with border-crossing ethical enterprise best practices, or has sought to demonstrate the lack of correspondence between claims by market actors and their actual conduct, my interpretative interest here is of a different sort. I ask: How is an unequal mapping of the ethical capacities and potentials of different global sites, subjects, and cultures being conceptualized? What are the functions of these emerging transnational divisions and distributions in the moral cartography of economic life?

The recent past has seen the curious simultaneity of the unavoidable recognition of China’s rapid economic growth and the condemnation of the Chinese marketplace as distinctly absent of the normative best practices that market actors and organizations ostensibly abide by in more developed economies. It would seem that at the very moment when historically dominant national economies are being surpassed, or fear the same, by China, that a global distinction, which censures the ethical deficit in the Chinese economic sphere, is being given shape. In speaking with Singaporean corporate managers and British financial journalists, European NGOs and American social advocacy groups, I have noticed that anxieties about the economic advancement of contemporary China according to quantitative standards of assessment are tempered by the self-assurance that the Chinese economy remains morally deficient. GDP and rates of annual growth may show one picture, so we are told, but publics invested (psychically and financially) in developed economies can displace their concern over China’s development through a self-satisfaction that casts China as ethically fractured, while buttressing normative satisfactions with the robustly advanced social responsibility of “our own” economic conduct at home.

This divide exceeds the distinction between the service economy expertise in corporate responsibility primarily located in more developed economies and the emphasis on manufacturing for export in China; it is symptomatic of a supposed differentiation between cultures of ethical responsiveness at the collective level of economic practice. “Ethical capitalism,” a term coined by the British political geographer Andrew Barry, marks the development of a new benchmark for economic and moral modernity: the responsible firm and the socially conscious investor, manager, and consumer. A new global imaginary that hierarchically distributes the moral capacities and possible ethical futures of markets and economic actors is emerging.

A metaphor for an unbridled, under-regulated market, China has become fixated upon as a displaced site where we believe we can view the negative social costs of market practices unconstrained by the ethical norms that we presume are firmly in play closer to home. In this figurative global economic and moral imaginary, do we subtly circumvent greater attention to the normative dilemmas raised by corporate practices in places other than China, by vindicating these other sites as “more ethically developed,” to borrow the words of an executive at an American firm who spoke to me about the disparity between Chinese and Western notions of responsible enterprise?

Historically, a variety of tropes have been employed to represent salient features of the ethical configuration of the Chinese economy through individual figures. The duplicitous Chinese merchant played a significant role in the popular publications of the late nineteenth century American missionary, Arthur Smith, who claimed that “the commerce of the Chinese is a gigantic example of the national insincerity.” The more recent past, particularly during first period of China’s turn to economic liberalization, has seen a fixation on the inadequate rationality of those economic actors embedded in cultural norms that frustrate market presumptions about efficiency: the Chinese family firm; the often debated role of guanxi in economic relationships; workers accustomed to state enterprises who are unable to adapt to market discipline. It seemed that Chinese economic agents did not focus on self-maximization enough, that they did not value the inherent worth of radical individualism in the competitive private sector.

What is curious now is that as China has become measurably adept according to common market standards of success — and even more so during the recent economic downturn in comparison to previously dominant nations – there has been a strong resurgence in invocations of the morally compromised Chinese commercial participant.

Sure, a profitable industry of mostly foreign consultants, marketing firms, public relations executives, and managerial experts who bring expert knowledge on issues of corporate social responsibility has developed in China, but the payoff of the moral mapping I have alluded to is of a different sort. It is precisely the characterization of China as a location desperately in need of an imported moral education on business matters that gives us a cynical comfort in the ethics of our own economic behaviors, in our internationally competitive advantage as moral persons.

Andrew Hao is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Andrew has done research on corporate social responsibility and business ethics in Beijing and Shanghai. He has taught at the Haas School of Business, U.C. Berkeley, the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, and Montclair State University. You can reach him at